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Getting to the Top Means Being Realistic

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A recent set of Harvard Business School studies show that relative to men, we women believe we’re capable of equal success in the workforce, are less ambitious when it comes to getting the “top” jobs, perceive more conflicts associated with getting these positions, and have more non-career goals in life.

This is headier stuff than first meets the eye.

Notice that the study didn’t draw any causal conclusions. It didn’t because of a concept called “reflexivity.” Reflexivity is the idea that some things don’t have a simple cause-and-effect relationship but rather have a circular cause-and-effect relationship. An example of reflexivity is if both the following sentences are true:

  • Women are less ambitious about getting “top jobs” because they perceive more life conflicts and have other goals.
  • Women have other goals and perceive more life conflicts with getting “top jobs” because they are less ambitious.

We believe that career ambition and career success for women is absolutely a reflexive phenomenon. What we see around us influences what we think we’re capable of and vice-verse. That’s why female role models matter, moms like buying Goldie Blox for their daughters, and society seems to love (and hate) hearing female executives talk about work-life balance.

We all know that some women really are less ambitious than some men (just as some men are less ambitious than some women). But there seems to be a general reluctance to publicly admit that is true for fear of perpetuating another generation of disappointing female leadership numbers. One recent poll even found that a majority of young women think its socially unacceptable to have no ambition.

We can certainly understand that there’s a real fear of deterring some young women from trying to achieve more if we highlight any tradeoffs a career might entail. Whether those trade-offs are for more time with family or simply just increased career-related stress, there is well-meaning concern over dissuading impressionable young minds from achieving their full potential.

However, we are actually encouraged by the Harvard data. We believe that in a career marathon, the realistic ones who plan, research, and are armed with the best information are the ones more likely to survive the difficulties ahead. You wouldn’t attempt to climb Everest with just visions of glory and no expectations of frostbite. The prepared corporate executives are the ones who train themselves mentally, emotionally, and even physically for the challenges ahead. If women are more realistic than men about the trade-offs it takes to pursue anything single-mindedly, it seems to us that they may well be at an advantage.

Not every woman wants to become a CEO nor an executive and that’s absolutely fine. But we think the ones that do have a better shot if they’re realistic (warts and all) about what it may take to get there.

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What Top Female Tech Execs Look Like



We all know about the dismal number of female CEOs and directors in corporate America. But their small number also creates a unique opportunity to study those women who are making to the top.  We may not be investigative journalists, but we do consider ourselves keen observers of female leaders, and we’re very interested in all aspects of their career and success.  This week we decided to do some research on some of the most senior women at the largest tech companies in the Fairygodboss database.

We first looked at the executive management teams of 10 companies: Apple, Google, IBM, Intel, Cisco, Oracle, HP, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.  From there, we made a list of all the women (totaling 25) holding titles of either Senior Vice President or Executive Vice President.  We categorized them by business function (e.g. operations vs human resources) and to bring some focus to our research, we zoned in on the 12 women who appear to manage divisions with P&L responsibilities (including obviously the CEO and COO).


ceo business funtcion Fairygodboss

We read their official bios, google-bombed them, examined their social media profiles, and just generally tried to understand a few things about them: What were their career paths?  What were their educational backgrounds?  What else did they share in common?

Here’s what we found.  Female executives in this group were likely to be:

  • Loyal company employees with 10+ years at their current employer
  • Promoted to their current positions within the past few years
  • Married with children
  • Holders of an undergraduate degree in economics or engineering
  • Daughters of mothers they considered role models
  • Beneficiaries of a mentorship or sponsorship relationship with a current or former CEO
  • Blond, and from the west coast 

While causation and correlation shouldn’t be confused, these women appear highly loyal.  Nobody on our list could be described as a “job hopper.”  Those who spent less than a decade at their present employer, spent similar amounts of time at their prior employer.  Almost none had CVs listing more than 2-3 companies over the course of their entire career.  Perhaps this is simply a generational thing, since few millennials seem to exhibit this kind of loyalty to a company.  Another explanation may be that takes a long time to build the political capital required to get to these levels.  Once credibility is established, it might be quite costly to move.  Moreover, several women appear to have had close sponsorship, mentorship or protege relationships with current or former CEOs (Ahrendts, Wojcicki, James, Catz and Sandberg). 


tenure years Fairygodboss

Approximately 75% of these women were promoted to their senior roles recently (i.e. in the past 3-5 years).  It may be coincidental but we suspect that this timing might also be due to increasing awareness about gender diversity.  Certainly the media has focused on these executives’ gender.  Many of these women were interviewed or spoke at events where they were asked questions about their personal balancing act as mothers and wives (Ahrendts, Wojcicki, van Kralingen, Bryant, Catz, Whitman, Johnson, Sandberg).  Overall, however, these women are relatively private digital citizens: 1/3 of them don’t even have LinkedIn profiles.

A significant percentage of these women have talked publicly about their relatively modest or middle-class backgrounds (Ahrendts, Bryant, Catz), and some are on record citing their mothers as early role models (Rometty, Jacoby, Reese).  While at least half attended Ivy League or “top” universities, the other half attended local colleges.  Regardless of their alma mater’s prestige, half of these women earned either economics (Jacoby, Whitman, Sandeberg) or engineering degrees (Rometty, Bryant, Johnson). 





For further reading on these women, we’ve tried to summarize our findings and share some of the better articles about them.


Angela Ahrendts — It’s doubtful we can say anything new about Ahrendts so we thought the best thing we could do is highlight the best of what we’ve found online.  Much ink has been spilled about her tenure and accomplishments at Burberry in particular, but unlike most of her fellow female executives in this report, she is quite open about her personal life, beliefs and views on “work-life balance“. She hails from Indiana where she also received a degree in Merchandising and Marketing from Ball State University and gave this revealing commencement speech in 2010.  One significant former mentor she had is Donna Karan, who stepped down from her eponymous company recently.  Ahrendts is married with three children.


Susan Wojcicki – Wojcicki’s infamous garage was Google’s first office and after being their first landlord, Wojcicki became an early employee.  She is currently Senior Vice President and CEO of YouTube.  She has been with the company since 1998, and previously ran Google’s early revenue generators: AdWords, AdSense and Analytics businesses.  Wojcicki is a mother of five  and is well-known for her support of mothers and work-life balance.  She earned a degree in history and literature from Harvard University, a Masters in Economics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and completed her MBA at UCLA.  Before Google, she worked briefly as a management consultant.


Virginia Rometty – Appointed President and CEO in 2012, Rometty has spent all but two years of her career at IBM.  She was previously SVP of Sales, Marketing and Strategy.  She cites her single, working mother and midwestern upbringing as the eldest of four children as important early influences o her career.  Rometty is married with no children.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering (via scholarship) from Northwestern University.

Bridget van Kralingen – SVP of IBM’s Global Business Services, van Kralingen runs IBM’s consulting business.  Previously she was the General Manager of IBM’s North American business.  Hailing originally from South Africa, she holds a Masters of Commerce degree from the University of South Africa and Bachelors of Commerce degree from the University of Witwatersrand.  Prior to joining IBM in 2004, she was a Managing Partner at Deloitte in their Financial Services Sector.


Renee James – Though news has just broken of her departure at Intel to come at the end of the year, James has spent almost her entire career at Intel. She is apparently seeking and interested in a CEO position elsewhere.  Appointed as President of the company in 2013, James was a protege of founder and CEO Andy Grove early in her career.  Prior to her role as President, she ran Intel’s Software and Services Group.  She joined Intel in 1989 via the acquisition of her former employer Bell Communications.

Diane Bryant – Senior Vice President of the Data Centers Group, Bryant  .  By all accounts very supportive of women in technology and women studying engineering, she comes from a modest upbringing in Sacramento, California.  She holds 4 patents, and is a married mother to 2 children.  She discusses her approach to work-life balance here.


Rebecca Jacoby – Recently promoted to SVP of Operations at Cisco, Jacoby was for many years the CIO of Cisco.  She received degrees from the University of the Pacific and Santa Clara University.  She advocates for women and cites her mother’s influence on her.  She is the eighth of nine children but has no children of her own.


Safra Catz – Co-CEO of Oracle since 2014, Catz joined Oracle as a Managing Director at the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.  She held roles ranging from President, CFO and Director at Oracle and is largely credited for Oracle’s acquisition of PeopleSoft.  She’s noted to have an unusual relationship and history with Oracle founder and former CEO, Larry Ellison.  Born in Israel, she grew up in Massachusetts and is married with two children.


Meg Whitman – Whitman joined HP as a Director on the Board in 2011 and was nominated CEO of the company in the same year.  Previously, she had unsuccessfully run for the Governor of California and prior to that she was CEO of eBay, overseeing the company from 1998-2008 when the company grew from 30 employees and $4 million in revenue into a 15,000 employee company generating $8 billion in revenue.  She is married with two children.  


Peggy Johnson – Appointed as Executive Vice President of Business Development, Johnson joined Microsoft in 2014 from Qualcomm where she was most recently Executive Vice President of Global Market Development and spent 24 years in various business divisions.  Johnson’s presidency of the high-profile Qualcomm Internet Services and MediaFLO Technologies divisions is well-known.  She is a mother, holds a degree in electrical engineering from San Diego State University and has written this piece offering advice to help women in technology.  


Sheryl Sandberg – Sandberg is a household name for her support and advocacy on behalf of women, so we will simply focus primarily on her career and educational accomplishments.  She is COO of Facebook, which she joined from Google in 2008 where she was Vice President of Global Online Sales.  She was briefly a McKinsey consultant and worked as Larry Summers’ chief of Staff for 5 years while he was Chief of Staff at the Treasury Department.  She is a mother and received her undergraduate and MBA degrees from Harvard University.

Does anything about these profiles surprise you?  Does anything about it make you think differently about gender diversity and advancement opportunities at these companies?  Share your point of view at — where women help women succeed.

working women

Why Women Should Ask for More Incentive Pay!

A rising tide lifts all boats.  We all “know” that when a company does well, executive compensation rises.  Similarly, when a company performs poorly, executive pay is penalized.  When it comes to gender, however, things are not this straightforward.

A recent paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York studied the compensation of female and male executives with the following titles: Chairman, Vice Chairman, CEO, COO and Presidents.  The authors found that 93% of the difference between what men and women executives earn could be explained by the incentive portion of their compensation.  In other words, the cash bonuses, stock and options tied to reaching company performance tended to be larger portions of a male executive’s total compensation package.  But its not just that women get less incentive comp.  Even when she does receive these sorts of incentive payments, a female executive benefits far less than her male counterpart when their company performs well.  As this Bloomberg article puts in graphical terms, she only gets 1/10th the benefit a male executive does.  And the real stinger is that when a company performs badly, the female executive’s pay is hit almost 2x as much as the male exec.

Was this because women-led companies performed worse than male-led companies?  The authors looked at this possibility and found no real difference in performance by gender.  What they do suggest as possible reasons are the same anecdotes we tend to hear on the topic, i.e. weaker networks of support and advocates, and calcified pay gaps that start early and continue even into the C-suite.

To us, the silver lining of this study is that there’s an actionable “to do”.  If you’re one of the fortunate women who actually is in a position to receive incentive compensation, ask for it — and ask for a lot of it!   While its never easy to ask for more pay, its probably easier to do it if you tie your request to performance targets since this request will be, by definition, justified by something concrete.  Even if you’re not in the C-suite, you can ask for your bonus to be tied to the company or department’s performance.  While the study didn’t study other positions within a company, its probably not far-fetched to think this pay gap in incentive pay is prevalent for other job titles.

The full NY Fed study can be found here (Warning: its quite academic and dense.)